Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Games You Should Have Played - 1981

[Computer Gaming]

Welcome back, ugly and maladapted peons! We're here once more for another round of Games You Should Have Played. These are the games that you can use to measure your personal worth as a human, and almost certainly find yourself lacking.

I'll clear up a couple of points. These aren't the best games ever made. (Tempest? Sweet Jeebers, Tempest?) They're not the best selling games, or the most popular. They're the ones that you should have played in order to talk games. I can safely say that if you've played my full list of Games You Should Have Played, you'll be able to geek out on pretty much any games discussion talk you care to name. And if you haven't played the list, then your life is shallow and meaningless. But more of that later.

So we're jumping once more in our time-travelling police box and riding the time vortex back to the year 1981. It's a year marked by a worldwide shortage of sherbert, a year when Mr T set the world land speed record in a jet-fuelled go-kart, and a year when magical fairies were sighted my millions in the sky above Tokyo. Shigeru Miyamoto duelled Roberta Williams in a steel-cage grudge match on live TV, and in an underground bunker somewhere in Japan a colourful little Italian plumber was grown in a vat with a life-long mission to fight giant apes and evil tortoises.

So... let's get down to the games.

1) Donkey Kong (Arcade)
"It's-a me, Jumpman!" Yes, that's right, he wasn't always known as Mario. Back in 1981, everyone's favourite mushroom-fixated plumber made his first appearance under the inauspicious name of Jumpman. And he wasn't a plumber yet, he was a carpenter. And it wasn't all wine and roses out of the gate, either. Before he'd even had time to become an offensive ethnic stereotype, Jumpman was beset with problems. You see, Jumpman's pet giant ape (I'm confused too) had escaped! And what's worse, the hairy fiend, who went by the name Donkey Kong, had kidnapped Jumpman's girlfriend (who, dressed in pink and constantly screaming "HELP!", was a clear credit to her gender). Much madness ensued, with Kong rolling barrels at the hapless Jumpman as Jumpman attempted to scale a construction site to defeat the evil ape and rescue his helpless girl. The game's worth noting for having a clear narrative to the story, advanced by cutscenes between levels, which was pretty much the first time this had been attempted in an action game. It's also for pretty much all intents and purposes the birth of the platformer.

2) Frogger (Arcade)
I still find it a little hard to believe that this comes from the same game studio eventually responsible for Metal Gear Solid. Or, then again, maybe not. You can see this game as a kind of Metal Gear Zero, or, if you like, Metal Gear Frogger. Tactical Stealth Espionage Action, in a setting ripped straight from the freeways of today. Only you can guide Solid Frog across five lanes of traffic and a raging river to reach the top of the screen (where, presumably, an offscreen battle against a Metal Gear occurs). Hey, now I want to go back and play this game again! "Frogger... FROGGER!"

3) Ms Pac-Man (Arcade)
From the people who brought you Mortal Kombat. I'd go into the whole joke about how whenever you eat a ghost you can yell "Fatality!" but I just did that for Frogger, so... I suppose you could see this game as some sort of feminist statement. I mean, the protagonist is a woman! (You can tell cos she has eyeliner, lipstick, a bow and a beauty spot; she's still a yellow ball with a big mouth, though.) In a way, Ms Pac-Man is the direct ancestor of Lara Croft, another success for women's lib... uh, I'm just going to stop talking now.

4) Galaga (Arcade)
It's the sequel to Galaxian, and it's pretty much the same game as Space Invaders, except fun to play. Of all the early vertical shooters, this is one of the few that's still a whole bunch of fun today. You can occasionally still find a Galaga cabinet in old pubs; if you spot one, fill it full of coins and have yourself a blast.

5) Asteroids (Arcade)
Actually, I've found varying reports listing Asteroids as coming out anywhere between 1979 and 1981. I don't really care when the damn thing came out; just play it. It's such a simple game, and yet so addictive. You see, you're this little ship, and you can rotate, and there's these asteroids moving around, and when you shoot the asteroids they turn into smaller asteroids and you get points. And then you shoot the smaller asteroids... and, um, it uses vector graphics. So maybe they're not ALL bad...

6) Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Apple II)
Why would you play this game when you could be playing Ultima or Zork? Why? And yet, enough people DID play it that it ended up with sequel after horrible, horrible sequel. It's bug ridden, it's confusing, it's got a punishing difficulty curve, it's largely pointless, and it looks really, really ugly. I can't stress enough, people, don't play any more of this game than you have to in order to understand why you shouldn't play it. Really, I'm only just including it here because 1981 was such an abysmally slow year for gaming.

And... you know what? That's it. There weren't any other important games. Oh sure, there was Crazy Kong (Donkey Kong in a funny hat), Castle Wolfenstein (eventual 3-D version notwithstanding, a very non-special game), Zork II (funtionally identical to the first installment in the series), but you can really get away with not playing any of them.

Six measly worthwhile games. Poor show, 1981. So stay tuned for Games You Should Have Played - 1982, wherein we discuss Q*Bert, and some other games too.

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